MEREDITH Strategy + Design

We design the places and spaces where people come together to do great work

A design "program" is a distracting, useless, and potentially destructive tool

One of the most difficult challenges for an architect is working for his client through a 3rd party project manager.

Third party project managers began to enter the practice landscape in an earlier era of recession when organizations moved from being owners to becoming lessors and began to utilize outside resources for services that had once been in-house competencies. This project or program management profession then gained momentum when its promise was the contracting of professional design and delivery services at lower fees and costs.

A typical result of this 3-party configuration is the creation of an administrative distance between the designer and the people who will live in his work. There is also a shift in value focus from the client's mission and purpose to management of relationships and resources. The project manager clearly expresses her suspicion of the architect's commitment to controlling costs, and the architect's management leadership shifts from design to risk management. The client stands on the sidelines looking for someone to pay beneficial attention to its organization's goals.

I believe that, unless our profession finds or develops new tools to gain and hold the attention of the client, we will immerse ourselves, our client and our client's representative in a years-long, dulling, three-way dissatisfaction.

In this context, I believe that the conventional design "program" is one of the most distracting, useless, and potentially destructive tools in a project where advancing the client's world by design is an objective. A list of spaces and areas places the focus on the physical thing and not the experience of the people who live in what we design, and the strongly implied linkage to cost ($/sf) makes the design solution merely an abstraction.

I'd propose that we seriously consider and promote the development and application of lessons-learned from "user experience" professionals (the new industrial designers) who are transforming the world and infiltrating our practice domain. Projects might be made richer and more satisfying for everyone if the "program" were augmented by, for example, "experience maps" that shift the focus and attention of the entire team to the daily lives of the occupants and visitors to the facilities.

Maybe then we could move from being measured by "errors and omissions" to measuring the rewards of "engagement." Maybe then, we can shift from seeking the diminishing returns of cheaper design to at least avoiding the erosion from cheapened experience.